limited boxed edition with 13cm x 13cm card inserts, texts, photography, found objects
Afondhu, is a compression and corruption of the Welsh name for “river” – Afon (in fact the River Avon literally translates as the River River), and the Old Celtic name Dhu – “black”, translated here as “Black River”
The inclusion of the word “black” as a toponymic prefix invokes images of the dark, mysterious, enigmatic landscape that succeeds it. Over many years I have visited and walked such places, the Black Mountains, Black Clough, Black Coombe, etc, all at certain times and in specific conditions emanating a dark, mercurial imagery. Yet upon further investigation, it seems that the very meaning of the word black has an uncertain etymology.
In “The Old Straight Track”, Alfred Watkins notes the abundance of “black” place names, and asserts that black is a word of “difficult history”.
“… It seems to come from the word blake or blac, which even in Anglo -Saxon days meant “shining, white, pale”, and which root has given us “bleach” and “bleak”…”
Watkins makes further reference to the slavic element , “blag”, meaning “blessed”, or “light-given”. It might then be inferred that these places had no association with the word black with reference to darkness, but were perhaps sites of special religious or spiritual interest.
Further into “The Old Straight Track”, and following on from his preliminary research in “Early British Trackways” , Watkins hints at possible links between black places and early coal-routes, and then due to lack of circumstantial evidence, ties them to possible beacon sites, or forms of ley-sighting points, on which beacons were lit.
Two decades prior to Watkins the pioneer scholar of toponymy, W.H. Duignan, noted an ancient farm known as “Black Lees” roughly three miles south-west of Cannock. He stated that ‘Land covered with gorse and heath was locally called black land, as distinguished from cultivated land’ (this also occurs in Northumbria, ). He goes on to describe ‘Blake Street’, which was ‘the name of an ancient road forming a portion of the boundary between the parishes of Shenstone and Sutton Coldfield, and the [then] counties of Stafford and Warwick.’
Duignan, like Watkins, posits the notion that ‘blake’ and ‘black’ share the same etymological root. The country around Blake Street was heath land until the mid-eighteenth century and was therefore ‘black land’. He notes that another ancient road, also called Blake Street, once a portion of the great London to Chester road, formerly went over Cannock Chase between Brownhills and Hednesford and formed a manorial boundary.
Discussions on the origins of the ‘black’ place-names relatively recently resurfaced in the pages of Current Archaeology. This started when Ruth Richardson published a letter, stating that she was researching field names in Herefordshire, that could be indicators of Roman sites. These tend to leave distinct discoloration of the soil; indeed, in France Roman sites are known as terres noires. Richardson suggested that Blackwardine and a blacklands field name in Lugwardine are both linked with known Roman settlements. Extensive enquiries revealed similar examples in Gloucestershire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire.
Some issues later, Carole Biggam asserts that the Old English blaec can mean either ‘black’ or ‘dark’ and cites the opinions of the author of the English Place-Name Society volume for Cheshire, J. McN. Dodgson, regarding the Willaston and Saighton Blake Streets. He interprets them as a ‘black, perhaps dirty, paved road’. Biggam also argues that blac, meaning ‘pale’, is rare in place-names and that any apparent associations with French blanc are coincidental.
These toponymic disputes have brought us no further progression from Watkins’ own uncertain attributions for black places. Perhaps he was wrong to link black sites with OE blac (pale, shining) but OE blaec (dark, black) is an equally valid description of a beacon site.
Excerpted from “Afondhu” limited boxed art edition, by B G Nichols, 2016